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Politics of Scripture

Everything, Everywhere, All in Lent

Sometimes, there are no cosmic answers to the cosmic questions around us. Jesus demonstrates that the answer to that question, ‘who are you?’ can only be lived out in relationality to the divine one moment, one temptation at a time.

The Temptation of Jesus

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,
    and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’

Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.”’

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

The 2022 genre-bending film Everything Everywhere All at Oncea cosmic story of love, death, and the multiplicity of human experience—shines a light on the cosmic story recounted in the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Lent. 

The film tackles a myriad of questions and is resplendent in its treatment of differing, complex themes. Wild and all over the place in terms of structure and genre, the film uses this chaos to fuel its deep interrogation into the diverse themes and questions it throws to its characters, and in turn, the viewer. What does it mean to be finite in a world with little to no lasting impact to the cosmic picture? What does it mean to hurt and be hurt and still love one another? What does it mean to have chosen a singular path, foreclosing other potentially more fruitful paths? What or who can validate my own existence? 

The liturgical wilderness, self-reflective, and sanctity of the season of Lent provide an opportunity to pursue those questions in the cosmic scope of the readings assigned to the first Sunday in Lent. Pulling from Genesis 2-3, Romans 5, and Matthew 4, the readings paint a multi-generational, cosmic story that spans the whole of human history. The reading from Genesis recounts the temptation of Adam and Eve and the subsequent ‘fall’ of humanity into sin. Romans 5 retells this story, with Paul theologizing about the role of sin, death, and the law in a mish-mash of forensic, regal, and typological metaphors. Then comes the Matthean account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, itself a retelling of the story of Israel coming out of Egypt through the wilderness. 

In a way, the readings and the film each operate on a cosmic level of scope. While perhaps lacking the level of humor and absurd surrealism of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the readings taken as a whole embark on a similar project of making sense and finding meaning in a world that is still under the shadow of death, darkness, and senselessness. 

Everything Everywhere All at Once, at its heart, tells the story of Chinese immigrant Evelyn, (played by Michelle Yeoh) and her relationships with herself, her life, and her family. Reader be warned that this reflection will include some spoilers for the film.

Evelyn, who eloped to the United States with her husband Waymond (played by Ke Huy Quan), is struggling. Her relationship with her queer daughter Joy is strained, her husband is filing for a divorce, and their laundromat is about to go under due to unpaid taxes. Through an absurd sequence of events, it is revealed that this is just one universe of many, and that this version of Evelyn is the only hope to save the destruction of the multiverse. The entity behind the destruction of the multiverse is unmasked as Evelyn’s daughter Joy from the “Alpha” universe. Alpha-Joy’s mind has splintered from universe hopping, and she now experiences all realities concurrently. Seeing only chaos and meaninglessness across all universes, Alpha-Joy is on a rampage to destroy everything. 

Evelyn seems to lean into the pain of existence and embrace the chaotic and self-destructive response, ready to end things. But she is pulled back from the brink of self-annihilation by a vision of Waymond reaching out to her across various universes. Then, as Joy pushes her mom away, asking her to let her go to avoid mutual hurt, Evelyn finds a new resolve to engage in an honest and vulnerable conversation with her daughter, acknowledging how Joy has hurt her over and over. Yet, despite the mutual hurt, Evelyn refuses to let go. Despite the hurt Evelyn inflicted on Joy, she still sought out her mother through the multiverse. No matter how much they hurt each other, the mother and daughter still long for each other, even when it makes no rational sense.

As a third-generation Chinese-American, and now a first-generation immigrant to New Zealand, this film hit home in many ways: the survival-induced gentleness of Chinese masculinity being mistaken for obsequiousness or weakness; the generational divides and the kinship ties that overcome them; and perhaps most striking, the struggle to fit a multiplicity of identities into a coherent cosmology. 

The movie, truly, is not only cosmic in scope but multi-cosmic. It is a story not just of a universe but of an ever-expanding universe, mirroring the immigrant family as the world expands around and within it. Within individual migrants, multiplicity emerges as one adapts to a new culture, space, and place. This expansiveness ripples into family dynamics as each tie becomes warped by the pull of a new world. While readily apparent in the migrant experience, these themes touch on a broader human impulse to understand one’s relationship with self, others, and the cosmos. By diving into these questions, the film offers a universal story about meaning-making, the human condition, and relationships. 

Beneath the surface of the lectionary texts lurk the same questions tackled in Everything, Everywhere All at Once. The story of the fall is a story making sense of how and why humans make mistakes, let each other down, and ultimately, why death is in the world. Taking up these questions, Paul paints the world in terms of sin and corresponding judgement. “As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses” (Romans 5:12-14). In the face of mortality, where is the meaning in life? Moreover, what does it mean to be an individual in this world of chaos? What meaning is out there to form one’s identity?

Matthew’s reading pushes further into this question of identity. New Testament scholar Dale Allison argues that the Matthean account of the temptation in the wilderness is a challenge to Jesus’ identity as ‘Son of God’, the title bestowed upon him at his baptism in the pericope immediately preceding this passage. Satan—in the narrative—is pressing Jesus to reveal himself through signs as the anointed one. In an essay in Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, Allison observes that Jesus refuses to give self-authenticating signs of his divinity. Instead, he displays his identity by way of obedience to God, recapitulating Israel’s history. 

The devil asks Jesus to demonstrate his divinity on the terms of human understanding, through signs of power: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (Matthew 4:6). Satan is asking: can you prove who you are to the cosmos? Can you prove you are the Son of God? But Jesus refuses revelation of divine identity on that comsic scale before the whole world in that moment. He refuses a cosmic answer. 

Sometimes, there are no cosmic answers to the cosmic questions around us. Jesus demonstrates that the answer to that question, ‘who are you?’ can only be lived out in relationality to the divine one moment, one temptation at a time. Jesus reveals himself as the Son of God on his own terms. He does not display his divinity with grandeur, Olympian strength, or conquest. Rather, he displays his identity through the incarnation, binding himself to the spatial and temporal limits of humanity. He enters into the world of chaos and uncertainty. Instead of giving cosmic answers to life’s big questions, he enlarges the human understanding of the cosmos, showing it to be filled with an ever deepening and widening expanse of grace and hope. 

But what does this all have to do with Lent? Historically, Lent has been a period of fasting, aligning the individual and Christian experience to that of Jesus’ and Israel’s journeys through the wilderness. It is a season of self-reflection and introspection, when one asks, “Who am I?”

In a world that is still darkened by the shadow of the realities of Death and Sin, as a Christian, I often find myself searching within my own person or in my community for some kind of divine self-authenticating signs. Wouldn’t it be nice if God set all doubts at ease by tearing open the sky and sending a dove of approval? Wouldn’t it be nice to be transfigured on the mountaintop with the prophets? But Lent is a time of questions, not necessarily of answers. Lent is a time to embrace that search for meaning. Lent is an opportunity to enter into the dessert of temptation and ask those questions that spiral and bleed out of those questions: Who am I? Who are we? 

In the film, Evelyn finds courage to confront the cosmic abyss of seeming meaninglessness of the multiverse by embracing the paradoxical nature and multiplicity within herself and her relationships with those around her. Lent is a period to find courage to take on that task—to enter the cosmic unknown even in the face of uncertainty and chaos. At the end of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the family enjoys a moment of peace, as each character grows in grace and understanding towards each other even when nothing seems to make rational sense. By naming and embracing the senselessness of life and the finite limitations of the human condition, the characters are able to move into a state of grace towards themselves and each other. 

The texts from today spin a cosmic story of Sin and Death locked in battle with God over the fate of humanity. In embracing the absurdity, the chaos, and senselessness of much of life, Lent becomes a period where one can name not only the brokenness of the world in cosmic terms but also, paradoxically, the powers of grace and restoration. As Evelyn finds meaning in the timelessness of her relational ties, so might others find meaning in the absurdity of the timeless God who binds God’s very self within the time of creation. Lent becomes a period where one can free oneself from that human desire to make sense of everything, everywhere, all at once. 

For in the end, just as Evelyn and her family discover, perhaps the only viable path forward in life is one that names the brokenness, acknowledges the complexity of the interconnected webs of human connection, and ultimately embraces the limits of finitude. 

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